Famous has become everything

Celebrity worship has changed over the last decades. The notion of celebrity has been stretched and expanded to the point of meaninglessness. Once celebrities were people who had achieved something—a something that made them famous. Today, celebrities include the infamous, the notorious and even. or perhaps mostly, the common. Reality TV has turned just about everyone into a celebrity at some time or another. We can become one by behaving badly enough, by winning money in a contest of luck or losing enough weight. Or by talking about our drug addiction, sexual perversions and moral lapses to a bald psychiatrist on TV. People become famous, and famous is enough. Famous has become everything.

This blurring of the lines between celebrities and the rest of us has made many people famous for at least Andy Warhol’s fifteen minutes.

Madame Tussaud was only one of the many people who made it happen. P.T. Barnum was another; Wild Bill Hickok and his Wild West show helped the process along. Technology was the most important influence through photographs, movies, television and, now, the social media. The effigies grow in number and so do the visitors, fans posing with their favorite famous people: arm-in-arm, kissing…. there’s a picture on-line of a woman acting out the part of Monica Lewinsky with a wax Bill Clinton.

In wax museums visitors try to figure out who’s alive and who’s dead.

The uncanniness of wax effigies is almost certainly about their lifelessness. The living blink, swallow and breathe. The effigies, on the other hand, are only about appearance. But it doesn’t even matter whether or not they represent someone living. The dead will do. The celebrity worshipper may be just as happy to get chummy with Einstein, Gandhi or Marilyn Monroe as with Britney Spears. The deification of Monroe and Elvis Presley is as ongoing as ever it was for George Washington. Whether celebrities are dead or alive isn’t that important to our need to associate ourselves with them.

They don’t even have to be real. Shrek is at Madame Tussaud’s.

Recent surveys reveal how young people feel about the subject of themselves and fame. American teenage girls responded that if they could press a button and become one of the following—smarter, stronger, more beautiful, or famous—they would choose the last. In another survey of “American students,” the choice was among “the CEO of a Fortune 500 company,” “president of Harvard/Yale,” “a Navy Seal” “a U.S. senator”, and “an assistant to a celebrity.”  The celebrity post won hands-down.

Perhaps it’s true, as Thomas de Zengotita suggests in his book Mediated, that “In this society, if you’re not famous, there is a certain very real sense in which you don’t exist.?”

Another effort to talk about our “reality”—crazed culture

In my last post I worried that I got off point and started talking in meaningless riddles. You may remember (and if you don’t, it’s near the conclusion of the post):“We’re all in the movie. There’s no distance and no place from which to view ourselves. What we have to do is stay on the screen and keep moving, while we all the time keep track of ourselves and of everyone else.”

In one of life’s coincidences, I picked up an April 12 New Yorker last night and read a short story by Ben Loory entitled “The TV” about a man who one day, for no particular reason, stays home from work and watches television. The program he watches doesn’t end until the end of the day when its leading character closes up his workplace and starts for home. It’s then, as he shampoos his hair in the shower, that he realizes that the show was about him. Not metaphorically about him, but actually about him. “But how could it have taken me so long to recognize my own self? he wonders. And how did they manage to find an actor who looks so exactly like me?”

The next day he watches again and confirms that the man is indeed him; even the credits say so. As time passes, he stays close to the television, watching the man who’s him work, go to lunch, and come home again. Soon the man who is himself evolves into someone who does all sorts of things the watcher never did—or did he since he and the man on the screen are one and the same?

His on-screen activity expands and grows more furious until one day he realizes he has a mind and that his mind is like a fist which he must focus on and keep closed at all costs. Of course, he finally does open it, only to discover he’s holding the end of an electrical cord. Feeling powerful, he takes the TV down to the basement trash, but on the way back up discovers himself doing the same thing, and then sees himself again bringing it back up the stairs and worse, the same man watching the TV in his living room  in the same familiar way. By now, the screen no longer holds his many selves: they’re too numerous; they’re everywhere and living all sorts of lives. All he can do is struggle to keep track of himself.

The story, of course, is more detailed and more nuanced, and the conclusion is full of irony. But it seems to me, it’s very like what I was trying to describe.  Of course, we’re all interested in each other’s lives. That’s part of what drives the arts—we want to know and understand other lives in relation to our own. But something else is happening when fiction is being eclipsed by reality TV and memoirs and magazines devoted to the details of everyone’s lives. When the privacy of other individuals, and even our own, is no longer respected.

Reality TV. my life is based on a true story. photo by Frames-of-Mind. Flickr. Creative Commons license.

Tolstoy answered the question “what is art?” declaring that “it is upon this capacity of man to receive another man’s expression of feeling and experience those feelings himself, that the activity of art is based.” In other words, empathy.

What I’m trying to talk about isn’t empathy, and it certainly isn’t art. But empathy and art (as in Mr. Loory’s story), may help us understand it.

The peril of watching television in the morning

I don’t usually watch television in the morning, but it was Saturday and it was on, and one of the morning hosts was doing a special on the increasing theat to privacy in our culture, especially because of the Internet, as well as all the cameras perched in stores, on city streets and highways.  The consensus was that it’s too late to do much about it, either as a society or as an individual. The invited expert suggested we each had two choices: live with it or seek out a unabomber’s shack in the mountains somewhere.

But this invasion of privacy—which is presumably not of our own choosing—is only part of a much wider phenomenon, where the private has become increasingly public. Reality TV is the most obvious example, but the Internet and the newsstands are full of the stories of “real people.” The details of the lives of celebrities are the most sought after, but as a nation we avidly watch people “just like us” in small claims court, getting counseling and therapy from Dr. Phil, financial help from Suzie, swapping wives and getting makeovers.

According to Ben Yagoda in his book Memoir: A History, nonfiction currently outsells fiction four to one and “total sales in the categories of Personal Memoirs, Childhood Memoirs, and Parental Memoirs increased more than 400 percent between 2004 and 2008.”

It may be that fiction has been threatened since 1966 when Truman Capote published In Cold Blood, the original non-fiction novel, although other writers had already explored the genre. Tom Wolfe wrote in his essay Pornoviolence: The book is neither a who-done-it nor a will-they-be-caught, since the answers to both questions are known from the outset … Instead, the book’s suspense is based largely on a totally new idea in detective stories: the promise of gory details, and the withholding of them until the end.

Much of our interest in the details of other people’s lives lies in our love of the sensational, and in what is, in essence, gossip. Most of us—even those of us who don’t want to admit it—like gossip. And even though it’s been characterized as mean-spirited, it just as often isn’t. It’s about hearing a good story, and even more, a story about someone we know, or feel we know. The key is that the story has to be entertaining, and it has to be about someone “real” that we feel kin to.

Gossip can’t be about fictional characters.

I still haven’t answered the question: Why are so many of us so thirsty for the details of the lives of others? And again: Why are so many of us eager to share our own? Is this a good thing?

I’m groping here, but I might be getting closer. Could it be that as we lose our privacy and our private lives, fiction seems less relevant? Could it be that we’re all in the media? We’re so immersed in the drama of it all. As people are sometimes said to say at the scene of a murder, “It’s so real. It’s just like the movies.” We can no longer contemplate our lives. We’re all in the movie. There’s no distance and no place from which to view ourselves. What we have to do is stay on the screen and keep moving, while we all the time keep track of ourselves and of everyone else.

Then again, maybe I just shouldn’t watch television in the morning.

Roman circuses and serious writers

What should writers of literature do when the world prefers Roman circuses?

I think I’ve mentioned reality TV on this blog before but I haven’t really tried to deal with it. Because it’s not just television that I want to talk about; it’s the Roman circus that so many of our lives have become – on TV, on the web, everywhere.

Nancy Bentley, an English professor at the University of Pennsylvania, recently published a book with the wonderful title, Frantic Panoramas: American Literature and Mass Culture, 1870-1920. It’s all about the emergence of novelty and sensation in popular culture, and the reaction of literary culture to it. Bentley opens with what seemed then like a new kind of public entertainment, when, in 1896, the public was invited to the staged head-on collision of two steam locomotives in Waco, Texas. Three spectators were killed by flying chunks of metal. 40,000 people attended, far more than would ever go to concert halls, libraries and museums. I don’t know if the author speculates further about the number, but it’s probably proportionately the same as would attend the infamous encounters of Christian martyrs and lions in the Roman coliseum, the burnings of martyrs in the course of the Inquisition, the hanging of  murderers in England or beheadings of revolutionaries in France, or, also proportionately, the mayhem and murder thrillers that regularly appear in our contemporary movie theaters.

I always wondered what these kids were watching. I'll bet the trains were about to collide.

I don’t think I’m wrong to find a similarity between these events and those of reality TV when an expert provided by Dr. Phil gives a lie detector exam to the wayward husband of a disappeared woman and her relatives plead with Phil, after the husband fails the test: “Is she dead then?”- and all of this, plus the tears and screams of the suffering family, all for our delectation, on national (or international?) television. I guess celebrities have been baring all on radio, in magazines and on TV for some time, but today, more and more “ordinary people” are telling all – their lies, infidelities, drug use, yes, and more and more, their violence against their nearest and dearest.

Says Bentley about the early 20th century, “Mass culture seemed to offer only novelty and sensation rather than reflection. It valued profit over refinement or learning. And the American population was far more interested in these new kinds of mass entertainment than in serious literature.” In response, she says, “highbrow writers like Henry James, Edith Wharton and W.E.B. DuBois started to incorporate images such as Wild West shows, disasters and train wrecks into their works…. They discovered that mass culture might actually offer clues and insights about modern society that literary culture had not yet detected.”

Well, maybe. I don’t know. What about today, when the disasters are just as often the personal lives of you and me broadcast to a public of millions, as they are train wrecks for 40,000? What are highbrow writers to learn about their craft from these other disasters, disasters that used to be stories whispered behind closed doors, murmured confessions of poor souls on psychiatrist’s couches, confidences between close friends, or maybe even fictionalized accounts of life that tried to figure out what it all meant?

Facts: 1) most successful novels today include many instances of violence and at least one murder (even though, in my 70 years of life I don’t think I’ve ever met a murderer or the victim of a murder); 2) more and more best sellers are memoirs, not novels, as if people want more than a good story – they want one whose protagonists make claims for its literal truth.

In other words, people want true stories about violence and murder. They want “frantic personal panoramas,”  Roman circuses whose victims are real people. They want reality TV and thrillers.

And how should writers respond? If they should. I truly don’t know, but maybe if I worry about it in my next post, maybe I’ll come up with something.